Texas Politics *Is* a Laughing Matter

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The BOR Interview with Stephanie Chiarello Noppenberg, Director of ‘Over The Lege’

Over the Lege is the political satire variety show we’ve been waiting for: all Texas politics, all the time. The brainchild of veteran legislative staffer Stephanie Chiarello Noppenberg, the show unites the expertise of legislative staffers, improv veterans and comedic writers to expose the shenanigans of the Texas Legislature. What better way to learn how to watch over the legislature than through singing, dancing, sketches and improv performances? BOR caught up with Stephanie last week, prior to catching the show.

BOR: How did you come up with the idea for Over the Lege?
Stephanie Chiarello Noppenberg: I’ve spent almost 10 years watching the Texas Legislature up close and personal as an employee. I’m amazed at what they say and do in committee rooms and on the chamber floors that go mostly unnoticed unless you’re part of the #txlege crowd. I’m a big fan of The Daily Show and Colbert Report and thought we need a political satire show focused solely on the Texas Legislature to educate every day Texans about what the government officials are doing.

Each weekend you tackle a different topic–immigration, women’s health, freedom and guns. Do you have a favorite? Is there another political theme you wish you could have added?
I love every theme and every sketch. OTL reminds me a bit of my favorite show, Friday Night Lights. Whoever is on stage – the actor or the sketch – is my favorite at that moment because they’re all so good. My writers are amazing. But if I had to pick, I’d say “Immigrants are Ghosts”, featuring Dan Patrick and Imam Yusuf Kavakci talking about why Patrick left the Senate floor in protest in 2007 when the Imam delivered the daily prayer. And “Former Fetus”, featuring Greg Abbott, Charlie Geren, and Jonathan Stickland. Abbott has taken it upon himself to referee the “former fetus” sign feud between Geren and Stickland.

Over the Lege includes celebrity guests at each show. Did any of them have prior show business experience? Excessive demands for backstage catering?
I spent literally all my political and personal favors up getting these celebrity guests to come on the show. And it’s totally been worth it. They’ve all be such great sports, performing in sketches with no rehearsal, and answering my silly questions during the interview segment. Senator Watson had extensive show business experience growing up – he was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and still remembers the opening monologue (as guests that night got to see him perform). And Senator Davis’s father owned a dinner theater in Ft. Worth when she was growing up, and I know she did some acting. I can’t talk about the backstage catering requirements. That was part of the contract.

Each performance includes improv from a different Austin improv group. How does that work? Did the performers have to take a test on Texas politics? Watch archived hearings of the Senate Finance Committee?
My original vision was that OTL was a variety show – a little sketch, a little stand-up, a little improv, a little singing, a little juggling, etc. But we wrote such great sketches, it’s sketch heavy in the first act, plus an energetic opening number written by Michael O’Connor. I wanted the second act to be completely different each show, and wanted to give local improv troupes the experience to mix laughter and improv and with politics. On the audition form for cast members, I did ask them to name their state senator without cheating. I was surprised so many knew theirs (Senator Watson, predominantly). Once I’d assembled the writing team, I shared with them ways to keep with the legislature and I was the main source of timely political information. I’d asked political friends to be mentors to the writers, with the idea that they’d be feeding the writers timely #txlege content, and the writers would use that for inspiration to write new sketches. But few of the mentors came through. I’m telling you that because I think I started with writers and a cast that didn’t know that much about the Texas Legislature, and now they know more, which was my main goal of the show – the edutain (entertain and educate). When we first started rehearsing, the cast hadn’t heard of Jane Nelson or Jonathan Stickland. But now they do, and they’ll be watching over the lege (get what I just did there) from now on. Which really warms my heart. Texans know very little about their elected officials. I believe Texas needs Over the Lege as a weekly political satire show based on the Texas Legislature to teach Texans about the shenanigans under the dome.

Is there an elected official y’all particularly enjoy portraying? One who brings out the best in you?
I personally am not imitating any elected officials. I do, however, portray lady liberty in the opening sketch. Ben Howell is a rock solid Dan Patrick, and Griffin Gardner could body double for Donna Campbell. My hope was at the beginning of each show, we’d have it brought to you by Senator so and so and Representative so and so. And that the audience would be tweeting them throughout the show based on a prompt we gave them. I fantasized about Jane Nelson wondering why she’d gotten mentioned in a 100 tweets suddenly by a bunch of strangers at a comedy show who are newly concerned about her position on women’s health research. But I also don’t want to get fired, and we couldn’t figure out how to make that component work.

Because although I recognize we’re not changing the unbalance of power in the Texas Legislature any time soon, we certainly can do a better job watching over the legislature and holding them accountable for their words and their actions. Someone else asked me if I thought the legislators should be scared to be portrayed on OTL. My answer is if they’re proud of their actions, their positions, and their statements – they’ve got nothing to worry about. But if they think it’s shameful or inappropriate to prioritize transgender bathroom policy, and ignore the sexual-assault epidemic on college campuses and children dying in state care at CPS, then yes, they should be worried about any sketch Over the Lege produces. Although whatever sketch we do produce will be a riotous laugh-fest. That’s a campaign promise.

Last question: Are you planning to shop the show as a series on Time Warner Cable? Maybe debut the week of January 10th, 2017?
I am literally waiting by the phone for Time Warner Cable or Comedy Central to call and say let’s do this. We sold out seven of eight shows (and I suspect we’ll sell out the eighth show, too), which was something I never imagined we’d accomplish. I believe this illustrates the desire for a weekly political satire show about the Texas Legislature. And when I say a “show” – I specifically mean Over the Lege. With me and my team. I would love to be the Samantha Bee of the Texas Legislature. We are planning phase two of Over the Lege, which will be at the least our website with fresh, timely satirical content during session. We hope to do a mid-session show and keep up the live show at least yearly at the Institution Theater. We are available for hire, and will have an encore performance at an Annie’s List fundraiser on November 17th. Does anyone have a phone number for Samantha Bee? #askingforafriend

The sold-out show finishes its run this weekend at the Institution Theater. An encore performance, benefitting Annie’s List, will take place on November 17th at the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin. Tickets available here.


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Burnt Orange Report

Burnt Orange Report, or BOR for short, is Texas' largest political blog, written from a progressive/liberal/Democratic standpoint.

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